After more than a century of research and debate, what more is there to be learned about the sinking of the 'unsinkable' liner? The expert authors of a comprehensive book on the disaster share some of the latest revelations
On the night of 14/15 April 1912, a brand-new, supposedly unsinkable ship – the largest and most luxurious vessel in the world at the time – collided with an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage. Of the 2,208 people aboard the Titanic, only 712 were saved.
One of the most comprehensive and detailed books on the topic, first published 2012, offers fascinating insights into how the tragedy unfolded. Using rarely seen and previously unpublished accounts of the sinking, On A Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic examines the ship’s design, construction and maiden voyage, and considers why so few of those aboard the ship survived.
Now in its third edition, the book has since been hailed as one of the finest works written on the sinking of the Titanic and was nominated for the 2012 Mountbatten Maritime Award.
Here, writing for History Extra, the authors share four startling revelations about the disaster…
So many works have been published on the Titanic disaster of 1912 that many have asked: “What else is there to be learned?” The answer is: a lot.
When writing our book, we vowed not to regurgitate oft-told ‘facts’ – everything had to be traced back to original source material. Too many myths and errors have leaked into the historical record. Initially, an entirely new timeline of the disaster had to be built, and previously unpublished or rarely seen survivor accounts incorporated. We worked with a worldwide team of noted researchers as our work proceeded, hashing out debatable subjects and trying to arrive at the conclusions best supported by evidence. Emotional attachment to even dearly held beliefs were cast aside whenever the evidence demanded it.
The facts allowed us to quickly dismiss the most absurd of theories – those proposing a conspiracy to switch the Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic, in some sort of insurance fraud, or the idea that the Titanic was built to substandard quality in order to save money, for example – but our scholarly approach led to many surprises. Here are some of the more significant revelations included in the book…
Captain Smith and White Star chairman Bruce Ismay have been the subject of much derision and criticism – but the record suggests that both men have been treated unfairly by history
The two men have often come under fire for their actions during the voyage and the sinking. Captain Smith drove his ship at full speed into an ice field he knew was there; once the ship hit the berg, he’s been accused of being rather detached from the evacuation, and of not taking a strong position as a leading figure when he was most needed.
Ismay, meanwhile, has often been assailed for allegedly driving Captain Smith to increase speed through dangerous waters, and of ordering the ship to resume course after the collision, thus endangering lives. He has even been criticised simply because he survived.
However, the historical record clearly shows that Captain Smith’s decision to increase speed that evening, though clearly questionable in hindsight, was nothing extraordinary at the time. Indeed, the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania (British ocean liners launched in 1906) regularly sped through those same waters, and even through known ice fields, at even greater speeds, and continued to do so even after the Titanic disaster. Clearly, Captain Smith cannot be condemned any more than every other captain of a passenger liner on the Atlantic at the time. Captain Smith was simply the unlucky one.
Additionally, it has been suggested that Smith was ‘in a daze’ and ineffective in the face of the disaster. This notion has surfaced in many books and even on film, but there is virtually no evidence to support it. The source of this belief may be the ship’s Second Officer, Charles Lightoller, who in his book described having to approach and ask the captain for permission to begin loading women and children into the lifeboats. However, the aggregate accounts show that Captain Smith was resolutely in charge, and that he was a captain of action during the crisis.
Smith, who was aged 62 at the time, was seen moving from one place to another, giving careful and thoughtful orders. Off-duty when the iceberg was struck, Smith quickly took charge, personally making two inspection trips below deck to look for damage, and preparing the wireless men for the possibility of having to call for help. He even erred on the side of caution by preparing the lifeboats for loading before he was certain that the ship was sinking. Smith was observed all around the decks, personally overseeing and helping to load the lifeboats, interacting with passengers, and striking a delicate balance between trying to instill urgency to follow evacuation orders while simultaneously attempting to dissuade panic.
The eyewitness accounts also indicate that Smith continued to work to save others until water literally reached the deck beneath his feet, at which point nothing more could be done. He then apparently jumped overboard rather than remaining on the railings until water engulfed him.
Meanwhile, the record clearly shows that Bruce Ismay, though quite involved in and excited about the performance of the Titanic on that voyage, exerted no undue influence on Captain Smith to drive the ship on at utmost speed against the commander’s better judgment. Following the collision, Ismay helped to calm passengers and even actively participated in the loading of the lifeboats. Only at the very end did he take a seat in a lifeboat himself – a decision about which we let the reader make their own judgment. Ismay suffered irreparable damage to his reputation simply because he survived.
In our book we carefully lay out the facts, and avoid undue criticism of these two men where the facts do not support such. A few commentators have implied that we actively try to defend the captain and White Star chairman. Quite the contrary – we simply found that the eyewitness statements, studied objectively, paint these men in a more favorable light than that in which they have often been portrayed in the past.
Shipbuilder Thomas Andrews did not meet his fate in the way so often portrayed in books, documentaries and films about the disaster. In fact, his death was substantially more heroic
During our research, we were startled to find that every documentary, film and book ever produced on the Titanic had got the details of the death of Harland & Wolff’s Thomas Andrews wrong. He is consistently portrayed as having retired to the First Class Smoking Room, in a state of shock, to wait for the end. However, we discovered that evidence to support that notion is only barely credible; even if he was seen there, it was long before the ship actually foundered.
Instead, we discovered astounding, yet very plausible, evidence from survivors: several accounts state that Andrews was seen near the end, helping passengers into boats and later throwing deck chairs overboard to assist people struggling in the water before heading towards the railings just minutes before the ship sank.
One particularly important eyewitness was mess steward Cecil William N Fitzpatrick: he reported that he saw Andrews and Captain Smith go over the bridge rail into the sea together [the bridge was the control centre of the ship, on the uppermost deck] just moments before the deck was swamped. Fitzpatrick was also on the bridge [that is, in the control centre] at the time, and he ended up in the water before climbing aboard one of the lifeboats. Fitzpatrick apparently reported this information in a statement to David Galloway, a friend of Thomas Andrews, who relayed the information to Lord Pirrie, Andrews’ uncle. Fitzpatrick’s own published account harmonises with his statements to Galloway.
Eyewitness accounts do support the possibility that one of the ship’s officers committed suicide, as portrayed in James Cameron’s movie
Another controversy was renewed when the 1997 film depicted First Officer William Murdoch committing suicide, after first shooting male passengers trying to board a lifeboat. Some complained that this depiction was an insult to a fine man and a hero; many of these complaints came from people in Murdoch’s hometown, and their defensiveness is understandable. Indeed, surviving Second Officer Charles Lightoller wrote to Murdoch’s widow: “I was … certainly the last officer to see Mr Murdoch. … I was then practically looking down on your husband and his men. He was working hard, personally assisting, overhauling the forward boat’s fall. … Other reports as to the ending are absolutely false.”
Yet Cameron hadn’t invented the claims about Murdoch. After the disaster, numerous newspaper accounts mentioned a suicide, many naming Murdoch as the officer involved. However, a close examination of many of these accounts gives reason for concern: often, the alleged witness was in a lifeboat, or had been in the wrong location to see what may have happened. In some cases, evidence indicates that reporters of the day invented the quotes.
Yet several first-person accounts, written by survivors to family and friends, indicate that something did happen on the forward boat deck, close to where Murdoch was last seen.
The two most authoritative accounts of a suicide are from First Class passenger George Rheims and Third Class passenger Eugene Daly. Rheims, in a letter to his wife, wrote: “I saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man. … He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head.”
Daly, meanwhile, wrote to his sister: “At the first cabin (deck) … I saw the officer shoot two men dead. … Afterwards there was another shot, and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck. They told me he shot himself, but I did not see him.”
Other than the statement of how many men were killed by the officer, this is very close to Rheims’ account. Both Rheims and Daly repeated their claims in more than one account. Additionally, both men were on the forward boat deck, where most accounts place a shooting. In fact, First Class passenger Richard Norris Williams stated that he heard a gunshot behind him just as water reached this very location.
However, it is important to note that neither Rheims nor Daly mentioned the name of the officer. Could the officer involved have been someone other than Murdoch? Possibly – Sixth Officer James Moody was also in that vicinity. The whereabouts of Chief Officer Henry Wilde following the loading of collapsible lifeboat D on the port side of the boat deck, 15 minutes before the ship sank, are unknown. A very small number of vague newspaper accounts do allege that Wilde was the shooter.
Whether an officer committed suicide during Titanic’s sinking will probably never be known with certainty, at least not without the discovery of more eyewitness information, and many of the people who would have witnessed the suicide (if it occurred) perished in the disaster. At present there just isn’t enough reliable information available to make concrete determinations.
Until the wreck of Titanic was discovered, the majority of people believed that the ship had sunk intact. However, our comprehensive analysis of the eyewitness accounts from 1912 reveals that the majority of survivors who spoke on the subject stated that the ship broke in half
In the course of our research, we were astounded when we undertook a careful analysis of survivors’ descriptions of the ship’s final moments. Before 1985, it was generally concluded that the ship had sank intact. Yet when we compiled survivor accounts of the ship’s last five minutes, we discovered that the majority of survivors who commented on the subject had actually described a breakup. Furthermore, what they said they saw was remarkably consistent.
Although there was certainly a clean vertical break in the hull around the third funnel, the damage continued much further aft. It tore the superstructure in those areas, shredded through the hull’s heavy double plates (creating a large piece of hull, dubbed ‘the big piece’, that was recovered from the sea floor), and broke two segments of the double bottom loose from the rest of the sections. In the process, the front cylinders of the engines were torn off; at least one survivor actually described seeing this event.
Those final moments were terrifying for everyone present. The picture we formed from combining the eyewitness accounts with forensic evidence should, we hope, be able to guide future researchers on the subject.
So, is there more to be learned about the sinking? We found new information about the final performance of the ship’s gallant band; showed how complacency had allowed the ship to legally leave port with so few lifeboats; revealed how Ismay, the White Star Line and Harland & Wolff had all happily prepared to meet new and more stringent safety regulations that never came into force before the disaster; and much more. We also managed to include many previously untold, or very rarely heard, passenger stories.
We formed all of this into a chronological narrative that tells the entire story of the Titanic and of those who were connected with her, and then also supplied a series of detailed appendices in the back of the book – nearly 100 pages filled with detailed data – to show how we reached the conclusions found in the narrative. We backed all of this up with thousands of detailed endnotes listing the sources of our information, and show where alternative conclusions are either possible or are ruled out by the facts.
We have not been able to give an entirely certain answer to every myth and controversy. And yet, through the pages of On A Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic, we were able to provide a clearer picture of the legendary ship’s history than has ever before been seen in a single volume, and show that there is much to be learned about the Titanic. The great ship still has mysteries to reveal.
J Kent Layton, Bill Wormstedt and Tad Fitch are the authors of On A Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic (Amberley Books). To find out more, click here
This article was first published on History Extra in November 2015